With other sports canceled, SEC esports teams keep competition alive

With other sports canceled, SEC esports teams keep competition alive

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OXFORD — A new warrior has entered the ring.

The sports world is staring down the barrel of a bummer of a summer. No baseball. No basketball. No hockey or soccer. No Olympics. There probably won’t be any tennis or golf either.

Sports was one of the first industries to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the absence of sports represents one of the more tangible, universal angsts felt across the United States.

In the Southeast, this feels doubly true. This is a region of the country where college baseball teams can routinely outdraw the Miami Marlins in attendance and where spring football scrimmages can garner as much tailgating attention as NFL playoff games. The SEC loves to market how it just means more, and it’s hard to ignore how true that feels when confronted with its absence.

That’s why in the age of social distancing, it’s fitting that the one sport already associated with social distancing — unfair as that may be — is the one avenue for competition the world may have left. Enter the niche world of college esports.

“I know this is the big step,” said Josh Chumney, the president of Mississippi State’s esports program. “Not to take advantage of the bad situation that’s happening globally, but it’s putting a spotlight on the esports side of things. I think the rest of the colleges in America doing esports realize that now too.”

A number of SEC esports programs recognize the opportunity confronting them. LeBron James can’t dunk from his living room and Nick Saban can’t coach a spring scrimmage via Zoom. But SEC esports players can and have continued competing even as the country endures work stoppages and stay-home orders.

Just ask LSU. On March 12, LSU moved all of its classes online through the rest of the semester and encouraged students to move off-campus. On March 18, Esports LSU was crowned Collegiate Rocket League’s Western Conference champions.

The Tigers’ 3-2 win over Arizona was scintillating. Imagine Rocket League as a game of soccer, except instead of players you have go-karts. Well, LSU swung possession and scored three goals in the final 1:15 of the match to win a best-of-7 series in six games.

From the comfort of their quarantine bunkers, more than 8,500 people have watched the match on the popular streaming site Twitch.

“If you look at esports right now, we’re fueled up and ready to push to show that esports is the next wave,” Chumney said. “It’s definitely a lot of pressure in that regard. But it’s good to see because a lot of people who don’t usually look to esports as an entertainment outlet are seeing it in a new fashion now because everything else is canceled.”

The world of SEC esports

All 14 SEC colleges have esports programs, varying in size and resources. It’s best to think of esports less like a football or basketball team and more like its own athletic department. Teams usually consist of three to six players, and some schools have 15 to 20 competitive teams across various video games. 

Games range from first-person shooters such as Call of Duty and CounterStrike: Global Offensive to arena battle games such as League of Legends and Dota 2, back to simpler, conventional sports games such as Madden and NBA 2K.

No SEC school has put more resources into esports than Missouri. Mizzou Esports boasts a 5,000-square-foot training facility and has plans to expand with a 2,200-square-foot Local Area Network (LAN) Center where gamers will be able to compete and watch events in person.

Missouri also offers scholarship money to its Rocket League, League of Legends and Overwatch players. Missouri, for what it’s worth, lost to LSU in the semifinal round of the CRL Western championships earlier this month.

Most SEC esports programs don’t have the resources like Missouri. Take Alabama. UA Esports hosted its first in-person event in February thanks to donations from tech company iBuyPower, which loaned the team mice, keyboards, headsets and 20 computer monitors to pull off the event.

Like most college esports teams, Alabama functions more like a club than anything else. They receive modest university funding and travel for events when they can. But according to team president Joe Faletra, a 20-year-old microbiology major, most players practice and compete from their homes and dorm rooms.

Faletra said he and the team have been in communication with Alabama’s marketing department trying to expand the program. Because if there’s one thing the University of Alabama values, it’s building winning sports programs.

“The way that they described it is the University of Alabama wants to be the best at everything,” Faletra said. “They want to be the best at every single sport as well as every single club and whatever else. It’s perfect for them to see how well our club is already doing in these tournaments and look at us as a worthy investment.”

Earlier this month, Alabama made it to the quarterfinals in a national CounterStrike: Global Offensive tournament and ranked No. 10 in the most recent top 25 poll for the Collegiate Call of Duty League. The poll also included four other SEC schools: No. 1 Texas A&M, No. 15 Tennessee, No. 22 Ole Miss and No. 24 Arkansas. 

As is often the case in football, no conference has more teams ranked in the top 25 than the SEC.

Fighting to grow

Esports is in an interesting position in the time of coronavirus. Over the weekend of March 21-22, real-life NASCAR and Formula 1 drivers competed in virtual races from their homes using driving simulators. The stream of the NASCAR race alone drew more than 70,000 unique viewers in its two-hour duration.

Colleges likely aren’t far behind on this trend. Chumney said representatives from Mississippi State’s administration reached out to MSU Esports in the days after the pandemic intensified. Tennessee’s athletics department did the same for UTK Esports, according to club advisor Jason Smethers.

“I know athletics has reached out to us and said ‘OK, we’re kind of bored. What can we do?'” Smethers said. “We’re just waiting to ring up the phone and have the actual conversation about it. I do think that’s moving forward.”

Of course, esports teams haven’t been immune to the effects of the pandemic. Tennessee, for example, was supposed to host an in-person tournament called VoLAN from March 28-30. That tournament had to be canceled and many of the events won’t be rescheduled online because of the short notice.

Ole Miss doesn’t have the same problem. Ole Miss Esports was supposed to host its in-person tournament LANshark 2020 over the weekend of April 17-19. Ole Miss Esports president Sergio Brack said the event will happen in full online. It’ll include the third “Rebel Rumble,” which is a showcase in fighting games such as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Tekken 7, as well as a Call of Duty tournament.

Since the teams competing aren’t affiliated with the NCAA or its esports equivalent, the NACE, there are cash prizes available for high-finishing teams.

Brack doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. He said he doesn’t expect Ole Miss Esports to start outdrawing football games at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium or baseball games at Swayze Field. But he does feel an internal pressure to pull off LANshark to the best of his abilities.

He said he’s seen other teams express disappointment because of canceled events. To that end, Brack didn’t want to disappoint anyone further. It’s his goal to give the college esports community something to look forward to during a difficult time for so many people.

“I always say the benefit of esports is the accessibility of it,” Brack said. “I think once people realize that, they can go a long way and see what we’re doing. I’m really excited for people to be able to support us from at home, the comfort of your couch, the comfort of your computer.”

With so many people confined to their couches across the country with nothing else to watch, those audiences might be bigger than ever.

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.

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